Editor's Note: Agri-Pulse and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the US agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.
Images of COVID-related shocks to the American food system have stunned many of us: long lines of cars waiting at foodbanks; farmers dumping milk and burying onions and cabbages to compost back into the soil; empty shelves at grocery stores. The ironies are blunt: too much supply in some places, but too little on the shelves in others.
The food system has weathered these shocks impressively well, but the past months have also revealed structural vulnerabilities that we must attend to. Returning to “normal” is not good enough.
For many American consumers, food production and distribution tends to function seamlessly, providing stable quantities at consistent prices; most of us pay scant attention to how it works. We have taken for granted its production, its logistics, its labor force, its 24/7 coordination across time and space.
Our seamless domestic food system is not the global norm; food systems do not function smoothly and are not expected to in many countries, especially in low income countries characterized by lots of small-scale farming. The certainty of our own country’s low food prices and stable food supply is something of a marvel for what it accomplishes on a daily basis, especially in this crisis. It is efficient at its objectives; and its over-arching objectives are low cost and omni-present food. Yet our food system is also characterized by acute global and regional inequities in the production and distribution of food, the co-existence of hunger and plenty.
Since the middle of March, however, food systems have had to respond to rapid changes. American consumers have been paying more attention.